One of the questions we get the most from HR and communications practitioners revolves around what it costs to have fun at work.
On the Gather Around blog, we’ve provided no shortage of culture ideas, best practices, and leadership strategies to plant the seeds for a great company culture. But building up company culture is a long play. It takes a considerable amount of time, effort, and patience to even create the requisite trust in the workplace employees need for culture buy-in. And in a working world where everyone’s running at a breakneck pace to meet razor-thin deadlines, time is the last thing anyone has to spare.
Wouldn’t it be better to redirect time and resources away from culture work and focus instead on driving employee performance?
The problem with the culture conversation
To be up front, we don’t see this culture-performance divide as a stark binary, nor do we think they’re mutually exclusive concepts. But we nevertheless understand why the question comes up.
Culture is a hot topic right now, but sometimes the conversation isn’t always pointed in the right direction. When asked to think of what a great company culture looks like, many people’s brains wander to material items. The pool tables and endless supplies of free snacks you’ve surely seen in an article about Google somewhere. Even some of the actual great places to work lists can fall into this trap, too.
But talking about only the tangible things creates an effect akin to a social media feed. When curated highlights of an office’s material benefits becomes all you see, it’s easy to develop assumptions that those cultures are all play, no work. And in this skewed view, all you need to do to have fun at work is sink a considerable amount of overhead into snacks and toys for grown-ups. But the things that actually make up a great culture are not always easily photographed.
Researchers Emma Seppala and Kim Cameron, who respectively carry Ph.D.s from Stanford University and the University of Michigan, note clear core principles, not material benefits, provide the basis of a strong company culture.
Across multiple studies, they distilled six elements that promote the positive culture outcomes. Those elements are rooted in empathy, support, accountability, inspiration, meaningful work, and respect. What matters is that these values permeate the human interactions that happen throughout the company. Culture initiatives–team building events, strengths exercises, office parties, and even the occasional game of ping pong, are great for bringing these out, but not all are required. It’s about finding what works best for the company and the people in it.
Have fun at work and still meet your deadlines
When companies are first founded, Bonfyre Director of Employee Experience Rob Seay says, leaders decide the business’ strategic focus early-on. Although he believes culture and performance are not binarily-opposed strategic priorities, the decision is made to prioritize developing one over the other. Companies can and will become entrenched in this focus for a considerable amount of time before leaders ever realize a more seamless blend is needed.
For the Harvard Business Review, Carolyn Dewar and Scott Kellar observe the culture focus usually gets the short shrift over the performance focus. As a result, it’s hard for culture to take root. “Few employees have too little to do,” they write. “This means that culture change efforts run as stand-alone programs typically are last on the list and rarely succeed.”
But an exclusive focus on performance and product over the well-being of people can be corrosive in the long run. Stress runs high in these companies, which takes a toll on the physical and mental health of employees. Research from the Karolinska Institute shows that the stress producing-bosses running these companies can increase an employee’s risk of suffering a heart attack.
But it doesn’t stop there. Seppala and Cameron observe that disengagement abounds for these employees, which has the accompanying side effects of higher absenteeism, lower productivity, more safety incidents, and the list goes on.
So where does it go wrong? Like many aspects of culture, leaders have a big part to play. HBR contributor Dan Cable notes that a single-minded pursuit of outcomes can encourage leaders to treat employees as just a means to and end. “As I’ve discovered in my own research, this ramps up people’s fear – fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of failing–and as a consequence people stop feeling positive emotions and their drive to experiment and learn is stifled.”
Of course, it certainly doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders should strive to find the sweet spot between a narrow focus on driving results and taking every opportunity to have fun at work.
One study by James Zenger examined the different characteristics employees believed made leaders great. Employees thought leaders who prioritized results first were great 14% of the time. They thought leaders who put people first were great 12% of the time. But leaders who balance their results and people focus–and view them as equally important–were considered great 72% of the time.
Finding balance is a transition, which inevitably means working through some pain points. Seay says the hiring practices will have to shift in accordance with the new equilibrium the company is seeking. When new hires are brought on, the company’s new roadmap, and its expectation for how employees fit into it, must be made clear.
“You don’t want to hire people that will disrupt the business–people who are complete opposites of what you are going to try to achieve and do,” Seay says.
You may find some of your existing employees who have been with you for some time fall into this camp. Seay notes its not uncommon for employees at companies with a changing organizational culture to feel alienated. “It’s not necessarily that there’s a cost of doing this, but you have to communicate that there’s a transition coming,” he says. “Some will embrace it, others won’t.”
But companies and leaders that can find their balance, and stick the landing, will eventually come out on top. As Seppala and Cameron detail, these organizations have superior performance outcomes, healthier workforces, and are more resilient in challenging times–to name just a few of the perks.
So, returning to the title question, can cultures that have fun at work still deliver results? If anything, when you make time not just for fun, but for cherishing and valuing the people who make up your company, you’ll get even more work done.